By Todd Allen

Last week, I conducted a survey on how people buy their comics.  The results of which are eye opening.  67% — a little over 2/3 — of respondents listed a form of pre-ordering as the primary purchasing method.

A few caveats with that:

  • This survey is representative of the readership of The Beat.  It does not necessarily reflect all comics readers.
  • Since this is a survey from an online comics site, this is probably slanted towards dedicated fans, not casual readers.
  • I would expect the Digital percentage to be a little higher from an online survey.
  • In the comment section on the original survey, many people expressed a use of mixed purchase modes.  Most frequently a variation on “I have a pull box, but I also look at the rack and will pick things up there.”

That said, it’s likely the average purchase volume of the dedicated fanbase is higher than casual readers.  Certainly, your pull box subscribers tend to order more books.  I also have some confidence that a 783 response survey has statistical significance for The Beat’s audience.  Particularly since the percentages changed very little once the survey got past 300 responses.

Let’s look at these numbers in a couple different ways.  Pull boxes and mail order are forms of pre-ordering.  Shopping off the rack and digital tend to be buying as things come out.  From that perspective, 58% of the audience pre-orders.  If you throw out digital, 67% of the print audience pre-orders.  If you just look at people buying comics at physical retail (remove mail order from the equation), then 57.6% pre-orders.

The first thing this says to me:

If the majority of the dedicated consumer base pre-orders, the publisher and/or creators cannot complain when the consumer has a bad reaction to a product announcement solicitation.  If the market buys sight unseen, they have the right to complain sight unseen.

Now, if you think that buying sight unseen is a strange market… well, I might agree with you there.

Yes, some of the pull box people will wait to make a decision on a new title until they see it on the rack.  Of course, with pull boxes being a significant percentage of sales, those pre-orders are going to have a significant influence on what a retailer orders for the shelf.  You also have 19.4% that are going mail order and making the retail rack a secondary thought at best.

Certainly, this trend will have the largest effect on new titles and especially new independent titles.  You have to get the pre-ordering consumer’s attention at the same time you’re soliciting the retailer.  Normally, selling to a retailer is called “sell-in” (i.e. you’re selling to get IN the stores and on the shelf).  It’s a B2B (business selling to another business) sales function.  You do that when the Diamond catalog comes out.  Then as the comics ship, you switch over to “sell-through”  and market to the consumer (B2C, is the jargon for that) .  Clearly, there’s a very serious blurring of the lines between sell-in and sell-through in the comics market.  Clearly, comic publishers need to be marketing to the consumers at the same time they’re marketing to the retailers.  Most industries would look at you like you’re crazy if you said that, but the Direct Market is a strange beast.

Pull boxes and mail order effectively replace the traditional notion of a magazine subscription for collectors.  Some of that would explain the percentages.  Pull boxes are frequently referred to as “subscription lists” and function as standing orders for many retailers and mail order companies.  Which again, makes it a little more interesting launching a new title where you’re effectively looking at people subscribing sight unseen.

I also suspect that the percentages change a lot from shop to shop and city to city.  Anecdotally, I’ve found a lot of differences between comic shops, in terms of how easy it was to shop off the rack and how easy it was to just walk in and pick up what you wanted.  New York City, for example, is so much of an off the rack town, the common discount method is to give you a rebate after you’ve spent a certain amount of money.  (For example, after you spend $100, you’re award $20 credit towards your next purchase.)  They don’t keep track of your books, just what you spend and pull boxes are an afterthought.  On the other hand, I spend a couple weeks in Iowa, there’s not enough time to pre-order, so I need to call in advance and hope there’s a shelf copy that can be pulled.

The secondary danger with too much of a consumer pre-order mentality is when the shelf stock is too low and potential new readers can’t find what they want.  You can’t complain about new readers coming in if you’re not stocking the goods.  Make no mistake about it — pull boxes and guaranteed sales are great for the retailers’ bottom line.  On the other hand, there are apparently a few stores that may be more of a subscription service than they are a retail establishment.  That’s not an unreasonable business model, but it is a different business model.

It would be interesting to see a wider survey on this matter and try to account for more casual readers.  (I’m looking at you, Bonfire Agency.)


  1. when the economy hit hard, all of my local shops cut back significantly on stocking of new stuff, while imposing minimum order quotas on pull boxes. It was more than i wanted to spend each moth and i was sick of never being able to find basic stuff (not to mention b-list and indie books) that they would have stocked in the past, so i just left the LCS behind and went digital.

    My shops told me my money was no longer good there so i found a digital competitor.

  2. Yes, A and B. The vast majority of comics I buy are pre-ordered based on PREVIEWS, but it’s a rare week that I don’t pick *something* up off the rack. This is especially true of items outside the standard $3-4, floppy format; given how much I spend on comics, an additional issue of a standard comic is no big commitment, but a $20 collection is something I’ll want to see before buying.

  3. What percentage were the “none of the above” answers?

    I remeber seeing quite a few responses (mine included) that didn’t fall into any of those four categories?

  4. None of the above = irrelevant to the survey.

    Newsstand = off the rack

    Buying tpbs is a different topic.

    Torrents aren’t buying in the first place.

  5. Aww, guess I voted too early for the 500 cut off, ha. Voted “off the rack” anyway, since I’d have to say my LCS has a pretty wide selection of stuff when I feel like dipping into the unknown.

  6. Todd, isn’t buying trades on from online retailers “pulling off the rack” when you get down to it?

    Those who do that are usually doing it after they are released – though if they do pre-order, then wouldn’t that be another tic in the pre-order category?

    Or is this just about single issues?

  7. I’m really only concerned with the single issues here. Trades are a real complicated topic these days — Diamond vs. Baker & Taylor; Marvel’s odd habits where keeping things in print is concerns; etc.

  8. Firt of all I live at the other side of the pond, Europe, where we have almost only standalone or serialized GNs and no ongoing single issue series like in America. It’s true that the standard so far format that grasped my attention so many years ago was the single issue ongoing series that dominated the 80’s and 90’s, but as of late I only buy collected editions, GNs and TPBs.

    What would I answer at that survey?

    May I ask why are you Todd only concerned with the single issues? Imho looking at those numbers without a comparison to a survey that includes TPBs is missing a point:

    This may be a turning point for the American industry to seriously rethink the format they are using. JMS’s Earth One and the Scott Pilgrim stories are great examples of how the American companies can try to use the European model successfully.

    With a solid and supported catalog of GNs and TPBs, sort of what DC is doing with the Watchmen and V for Vendetta Ips, admittedly for other reasons, the comic market may survive by evolving. Of course that evolution may completely destroy the LCSs, but the same thing is already happening or has happened to other local shops.

  9. Cool, looks like at least *one* other person from the Netherlands voted too, looking at the map.

    “Buying tpbs is a different topic.”

    Todd, I counted TPB’s in determining how I spend the most and how to vote. Didn’t get that we weren’t supposed to.

  10. Back in the mid-1990s, when I didn’t have to worry about paying rent, I budgeted $100 a week for comics at Big Planet in Bethesda, Maryland. (No, I didn’t spend that every week.)

    I had a standing subscription list, probably about 25-30 titles.

    I would then supplement that with a special order list (one page, double spaced) for each issue of Previews. (I still have the text files on a floppy somewhere… perhaps I’ll post one for nostalgia.)

    Then, each week, I would browse the shelves to see if there was anything of interest I might have missed. (I believe I purchased The Age of Apocalypse this way… I wasn’t a regular reader of the X-titles.)

    My day job was as a receiving clerk at Super Crown Books in Dupont Circle. Sometimes, I’d pick up a trade that caught my eye, or special order a title via Ingram (using microfiche!). Aside from the comic strip collections, and the rare title from regular publishers, we could get: Marvel, DC, WaRP, First, Dark Horse, Viz (under the radar, no one knew what manga was), and Cartoon Books.

    Now? I buy off the rack at Forbidden Planet, and get free trades (and some free comics) via my day job as a bookseller. I will, on occasion, buy from a newsstand, or read something digitally. (Yay, Netgalley!)

    Also, when I travel, I try to hit one local comics shop, if only to discover stuff off the beaten path.

    (Hmm… “Antique Pickers” but for comics shops… “Comic Strippers” perhaps?)

  11. When I want to buy entertainment I expect to either download it or order it from and have it in a few days. I can`t fathom having to order something 90 days in advance then hoping to remember I ordered it, then driving three miles to go pick it up in some hole in the wall store.
    Oh wonder comic books have dismal sales! As even I wanted to buy them I have to go thru way to many hoops.
    With music, TV shows.films, books, newspapers and magazines it is usually just a click. Who has time to preorder stuff then wait 90 days for it to arrive at a out of the way place?
    Respectfully “stam”

  12. Most places here offer you a significant discount for pre-orders vs. off-the-shelf. i assumed that was Universal, but wasn’t mentioned as a factor in the article, so now I’m curious.

  13. Dave, I get a discount from my shop, but that basically just covers the sales tax. That is for pull-boxes and off the shelf purchases, it used to not be that way.

  14. The LCS where I pre-order gives me a 25% discount – I’ve been a loyal customer for years, and I pre-order quite a lot (even though I have cut back considerably due to current finances). The other LCS, where I buy off the rack, started giving me a 10% discount – again, because I buy something every week.